Self-Studying = Backtracking, Obsessive Planning, and Unparalleled Success

As some of you may know, aside from being a published author, I’ve undertaken a self-study program directed towards particle cosmology. My foundations in physics was nil when I started–I didn’t even take physics in high school–so it’s been challenging creating this foundation while still studying the higher-level subjects (qualitatively for the most part for now -_-), and I’ve had to do a lot of backtracking, returning of textbooks, and trial runs of online courses. It’s definitely been an exercise in patience.

Just last week I ordered three used textbooks (at an amazing steal, I might add) from Amazon, but I already have to return them. If I have one piece of advice to give, it’s to never sacrifice the textbook you actually need/want for one that is a better deal. I make this mistake all the time; I’m way too stingy for my own good. From now on, I’m NEVER doing that again. Somebody hold me to this! I’m returning these books and getting the ones I want, priced be damned.

I don’t know how others approach self-studying, but for myself, I pretend to be in college. Thus, I need a minimum of four courses, I need to have due dates, quizzes, tests, and study sessions, and I need a schedule. One day a week I spend more time planning than actually studying, but it’s a price I have to pay.

One of the best resources I’ve found for self-study is MIT OCW. It’s an absolutely brilliant platform in the math and science subjects. They have courses tailor-made for self-study students, most notably in math. I also use Coursera and edX, and just started using FutureLearn this week for the Higgs Boson course. Yale also has a lecture series, though it’s very limited. All of these resources are free, by the way!

I try to combine an online lecture series with a textbook or two so that it feels more like what college. I aim for a lecture a day and a minimum of two chapters a week, plus certain days designated for reviews and due dates for assignments. The weekends I give over to six hours of learning/studying at a minimum.

Since I am doing this all at my own pace, I can afford to put less on my plate (which would certainly be nice considering I work full-time and am also publishing my second book in the next month or two), but I like the challenge. I like learning at this breakneck speed and challenging my mind. I am so excited to reach the higher levels of particle cosmology where I can start formulating original opinions rather than spending the bulk of my time learning.

I encourage all of you to take up self-study. Whatever you’re interested in but never got to learn, whatever book you’d like to study more deeply, whatever you wish you understood, start your own self-study program. It’s so rewarding, plus it allows people who can’t afford higher education learn while they earn and plan for a future in academics.

Some tips on making your self-study program:

(1) Decide what you want to study. For some of you, you may already know what it is that you’ve always wanted to learn. For others, I encourage you to take a tour around some really great, free educational websites: Coursera, edX, FutureLearn, and MIT OCW. There are thousands and thousands of courses you can sign up for, not to mention the archived ones. All of those websites, except for MIT OCW, are already structured, so you don’t have to do much planning of your week. For MIW OCW, all the material is there, but there’s no week-by-week structure and so you can cater your pace to your exact needs.

(2) Determine how much time you’re willing to spend on studying. Coursera, edX, and FutureLearn have courses that are split into weekly modules. Each module has videos, quizzes, and sometimes articles to read. If you sign up for a new course, you only have access to that week’s and all previous week’s work. In that way, you’re somewhat limited, and I much prefer the archived courses. With those, you have access to the entire course and can move through the material faster than a weekly progression.
At the moment, I’m taking the Discovery of the Higgs Boson course over at FutureLearn, and while it’s a fantastic course so far, I’ve been done with this week’s work for four days already and have just been waiting around for the next module. You definitely get the feel of being in a class, since your quizzes are graded and have a due date imposed by the course instructors and not just yourself, but you also have to wait for the next bonus interview with Peter Higgs and that’s excruciating.

(3) Plan out your week meticulously, yet flexibly. A schedule is everything, but if it can’t be adjusted for the unexpected, then it’s useless. There’s no sense at all in stressing yourself out about a self-study program; it’s there for you to expand your mind and reach your goals, not to burn you out. Realize that losing a night’s worth of studying is perfectly fine so long as you can maintain a good balance of discipline and flexibility.
What I do, and what may help you too, is to make allowances in my schedule ahead of time. I tend to plan for at least one night a week where I don’t learn anything new. This way, if on any day something unexpected happens, or I’m tired and can’t find the oomph to do any substantial work, or if I simply need a break, I don’t freak out about my schedule. If the week goes by and I didn’t need this night off, I’m ahead of schedule. Win-win.
There are a bunch of apps to help with scheduling, there’s even this really cool MOOC app, but I’m a pencil-and-paper kind of gal. I have a hard time remembering anything I read on a screen for some reason. I keep an old-school planner that I never go far without.

(4) Utilize your resources! All of the websites I’ve cited have message boards where self-study students like yourself can ask each other questions or connect to ponder over the subject matter. In some cases, there are TAs that get involved on the message boards, and sometimes even the professors themselves. I’ve had great conversations with other students and had my questions answered by the professors. It’s wonderful and should definitely be utilized.

(5) Don’t get discouraged. I’d be lying if I claimed to fly through my self-study program smoothly. I freely admit that I’ve been reduced to tears of frustration at not understanding what I was trying so hard to learn. You put in the effort, you have the will, but some subjects are not so easily understood as you would like them to be. It’s important to realize that this happens to literally everyone at multiple points in any program of study, be it high school, university, or self-study. Take the disappointments in stride and don’t let them consume you. Use that free night a week to take a break. Branch out and research different presentations of the material you’re having a hard time with for a different perspective. Reach out on message boards to others who could help you. Go for a run. Take a shower. Clear your mind and come back refreshed. More often than not, all you need is a little break and a new perspective on the material. Any mental blocks are not your fault. All you need is to find the right way around them.

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

Albert Einstein.

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